This past April, New York City widened its recycling program. An announcement made by Mayor Bloomberg indicated that that the Department of Sanitation now accepts rigid plastics (think ice coffee cups and yogurt containers). I recently had the opportunity to ask Christina Salvi, Assistant Director of the Office of Recycling Outreach and Education (OROE), about the new curbside recycling expansion, future plans for recycling things like food waste and single use tableware, and common recycling mistakes.
1. How long have you worked for The Office of Recycling Outreach and Education (OROE), and what is your role there?
OROE, a program of the non-profit GrowNYC, was created in 2006 as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s landmark Solid Waste Management Plan. I came on as one of the original staff members and am now the Assistant Director.
2. This spring NYC expanded their recycling program to include all rigid plastics. According to the city's Sanitation department, "Toys, Plastic Yogurt and Coffee Cups, Food Containers and All Rigid Plastic" are all recyclable now. How does this impact NYC's recycling program, and can you really recycle toys?
We are excited about this. It means we’re now able to cover about 40% of NYC’s waste stream through recycling, but more importantly it makes it much less confusing to sort out what goes where. With the availability of new technologies and evolving markets for materials, we are able to recycle more plastics. While this does mean we will be able to recover more plastics from toys and the like, we advocate for creating less waste in the first place by reducing consumption and reusing things that still have life in them.
3. I read that the City is also planning to expand its food waste recycling. Can you elaborate?
The City has ambitious plans to make organics collection available to all residents, and is currently piloting programs for single family homes in a Staten Island neighborhood, a few Manhattan high rises and 90 public schools. Since 2011, GrowNYC has been partnering with the City to expand food scrap composting collections at our Greenmarkets, demonstrating a willingness to separate this material from other waste. So far more than 55,000 New Yorkers have stored food scraps in their freezers and walked them to one of our collections, which are now available at 35 of our farmers markets each week. This gives us hope that we can capture more organics with a citywide program that brings it to their doorsteps.
4. Now that it's summer, people are going on picnics and are throwing outdoor parties. What do you think about PLA (compostable) plastics? If reusable tableware is not an option, what do you suggest people use?
PLA and petroleum-based plastics both have their pros and cons. A lot of people buy compostable cups and utensils thinking they can compost them locally, but actually you need access to a large scale industrial compost facility for this to work. When possible, use durables or focus on finger foods that require fewer disposables to consume. Soiled paper plates and napkins can be composted, and with the expansion to rigid plastics, more single-use products can be recycled.
5. What have you found are some common mistakes people make when recycling and sorting their trash?
Many people are confused by beverage cartons, meaning things like gable-top juice containers and shelf-stable boxes of soup and soy milk. These items ARE recyclable, and should go in the BLUE bin with glass, metal and plastic. I’ve been surprised by the number of buildings I’ve visited where residents put Styrofoam in either the paper bin or think it’s recyclable plastic when this material actually belongs in the regular trash. Beyond that, I think we could all improve the way we store materials by emptying and rinsing food containers, keeping paper separate from metal/glass/plastic, reducing the amount of plastic bags and film in recycling bins, and transitioning away from the use of blue bags, which for years have not been part of the program.
6. OROE is great resource for New Yorkers. What helpful information can people find on your website?
We offer a lot of ways for people to participate in reuse and recycling. Our “what’s in your waste?” page provides a breakdown of NYC’s waste stream and solutions for diverting these materials from disposal. You can also get a schedule of upcoming events for electronics recycling, free paper shredding, hazardous waste collections and more. You’ll find out about our free services, such as recycling workshops where all attendees receive a set of Sort & Store recycling totes to help with some of the issues mentioned above. Finally, you’ll see a schedule for Stop ‘N’ Swap®, our popular reuse event which is growing fast, with a goal to bring one to every community district in the city once a year.
(Image: NYC Department of Sanitation)